Airlines have been given the green light by the U.S. Department of Transportation to further restrict or prohibit emotional support animals onboard. But there’s still a potential loophole that can be exploited, even if not nearly as egregiously as before. Will “psychiatric service animals” be the new wink-wink, nudge-nudge for emotional support animals?
Emotional Support Animals Are Not Service Animals
The biggest takeaway from the DOT’s final rule is a new and narrower definition of service animals. Service animals are now limited to dogs and must be “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” The dogs must fit on the traveler’s lap or in the foot well at a passenger’s seat.
48 hours prior to travel (unless booked within 48 hours), a passenger must fill out a “Service Animal Air Transportation Form” created by the DOT which will affirm that the dog is trained. That form is not yet available. Airlines may no longer discriminate on the basis of breed.
Meanwhile, the DOT reasons that treating emotional support animals (ESAs) as service animals “amounts to a price restriction that sets the price of accommodating passengers who travel with ESAs at zero dollars, despite the fact that airlines face non-zero resource costs to accommodate those passengers.” It defines ESAs as “any animal shown by documentation to be necessary for the emotional well-being of a passenger.”
The DOT further explains:
In our view, allowing emotional support animals with a stricter set of requirements would perpetuate tiered systems that give rise to confusion and the continued opportunity for abuse and increased safety risk. As such, the final rule allows airlines to treat emotional support animals as pets. We note, however, that airlines may choose to continue to transport emotional support animals without charge at their discretion.
Furthermore, even if airlines decide after the effective date of this rule to charge pet fees for emotional support animals, this change would not impact the ability of individuals with psychiatric or mental health disabilities to continue to travel with their psychiatric service animals onboard aircraft without being charged a pet fee. This rule requires airlines to recognize animals that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of individuals with mental health disabilities as service animals, including psychiatric service animals.
Let me ask you a question: what does it mean to be trained?
The Potential Loophole – Psychiatric Service Animals
The DOT distinguishes between a service dog and emotional support dog by the training.
Emotional support animals are intended to mitigate a passenger’s disability by their presence, and are expected to be trained to behave in public, but are not individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a passenger with a disability.
A service animals must be individually trained. This includes psychiatric service animals:
Psychiatric service animals are treated the same as other service animals that are individually trained to do work or perform a task for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability
The DOT notes:
We solicited comment on the specific question whether and at what cost emotional support animals could be task-trained, and could therefore qualify as psychiatric service animals. We received few comments on this issue.
Welcome to the wild west…
Do you see what the DOT has done here? It has subtly made the link between emotional support animals and psychiatric service animals.
It gets worse:
It is our understanding that the vast majority of emotional support animals are dogs, and dogs can be task-trained to perform many different tasks and functions. We also note that the rule does not require service animal users to incur the cost of training by third party schools or organizations; service animal users are free to train their own dogs to perform a task or function for them.
Psychiatric service animal users will no longer be required to provide a letter from a licensed mental health professional detailing the passenger’s need for the animal, nor will they be required to check in one hour before the check-in time for other passengers.
So are you putting this together? No, we likely will never see emotional support pigs, peacocks, turtles, horses, or even large dogs, but the DOT has created a mile-wide loophole for smaller dogs.
What does it mean to train your dog? The DOT doesn’t say…all you have to do is promise that Bowser will be well-behaved…no other proof will be required.
The DOT promises it will monitor for fraud…
The Department will, however, monitor whether unscrupulous individuals are attempting to pass off their pets as service animals for non-apparent disabilities, including (but not limited to) psychiatric disabilities.
…but how? Are the airlines going to start sending “naughty” lists to the DOT?
While the DOT’s new definition of service animals will keep many of the more exotic ESAs off airplanes, the “psychiatric service animals” provides a fairly large loophole that will still allow small dogs onboard with even less paperwork than before. The new rules take effect in 30 days.
image: RyanTaylor / Shutterstock